Land of Pu-erh: Tea Fields of Xishuangbanna, China

No 70

Camellia sinensis, the Chinese tea plant, has been cultivated for thousands of years in the subtropics of Yunnan, considered by many to be the birthplace of the ancient drink. Tea is many things here: stimulant, medicine, occupation, and centerpiece of everyday ceremony. Life in these humid parts is, you might say, steeped in it.

The tea known as pu-erh is particularly cherished—enough so that the government restricts the labeling of it based on place of origin, much as the French do with Champagne. (Fake pu-erh abounds nonetheless.) Made from the large-leaf assamica varietal and harvested by the Bulang and other ethnic minorities, pu-erh is distinctive for the way it deepens and matures with age. There is a slow way and a fast way to effect this transformation. The traditional, “raw” method is to press the leaves into cakes and let them dry in the sun. Resourceful merchants have come up with “ripe” puerh in recent decades, which is the product of a fermenting shortcut.

The tea’s cultivators take to the misty hills to pick the assamica leaves as they have for centuries, clipping them one, two, or three at a time and piling them into bags or wicker baskets worn slung across the chest. The harvesters then throw the leaves into a giant wok and fry them. They wring them out, to remove any remaining moisture, and leave them to dry on racks and rattan pans. Pressing the withered leaves into rectangular or cylindrical bricks can be done by machine or hand.

The pu-erh makers of Xishuangbana, the name for this southern swathe of Yunnan, have aged fairly well themselves. Moderate change has come as demand for their product has edged up. Only recently have villages like Lao Banzhang been accepting credit cards from visitors. The roads by which cash and goods arrive are more navigable than before, even if they still require a 4x4. Most striking of the new comforts are the multi-storied modern houses that have sprung up in the Bulang Mountains, where they are sometimes within view of older, smaller village dwellings built on stilts.

Meanwhile, for the time being at least, the tea’s classification as a prestige product pretty much requires many of the old hand-harvesting techniques to remain in place. Few minority groups in China have been able to preserve their traditional livelihoods quite so successfully. “The health of our people and the health of our tea trees are linked,” explains a 43-year-old Bulang tea farmer named Dak. “And they always have been.”

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